Meet the bisexual First World War poet adored by Winston Churchill and who WB Yeats called ‘the handsomest young man in England’
It is 105 years today since Rupert Brooke, the bisexual poet who was described by WB Yeats as “the handsomest young man in England”, died.
Today, Brooke is remembered as one of a group of war poets who chronicled the First World War in Britain. While poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are remembered for their unflinchingly grim portrayal of life on the front line, Brooke is best remembered for his idealistic war sonnets such as The Soldier.
Brooke was already a revered poet by the time he died at just 27-years-old in 1915 – two of his war poems were published by The Times Literary Supplement that same year – but he also had a fascinating personal life, in which he struggled to understand his own sexuality.
After studying at the University of Cambridge, Brooke became involved with the legendary Bloomsbury Group, which included a number of historic gay writers such as EM Forster, Duncan Grant and John Maynard Keynes. Virginia Woolf, who was bisexual, was one of the group’s most influential members.
Rupert Brooke had sexual relationships with both men and women, but he struggled to accept that he was bisexual.
Surviving letters suggest that Rupert Brooke was attracted to men and women, and had sex with both during his lifetime. However, they also show that he struggled enormously to understand and accept his bisexuality.
In 1912, Brooke suffered an emotional crisis as he became increasingly confused and dismayed by his attraction to men and women. This crisis brought about an end to his relationship with Katherine Laird Cox. While he had a number of other romantic relationships with women, he was never able to reconcile himself with his bisexuality.
Writing in Taking It Like a Man, Adrian Caeser says Brooke considered “the bisexual position to be impossible” and believed his sexuality would prevent him from loving anyone wholeheartedly.
Brooke was “deeply uncertain as to his sexual identity, but seems to have wished to choose either homosexuality or heterosexuality”, Caesar writes.
“The bisexual option seems either not to have been available to him, or if it was, it does not seem to have impinged upon Brooke’s consciousness.”
Some of Brooke’s confusion came from the fact that he operated in social circles that were gay or straight – but he knew nobody else who inhabited an in-between space as he did.
His struggle was exacerbated by living in a society in which harsh, puritanical views around sexuality were common. People in early 20th century Britain were expected to adhere to strict social expectations around sexuality and sexual expression. Bisexuality was, quite simply, invisible.
The bisexual option seems either not to have been available to him, or if it was, it does not seem to have impinged upon Brooke’s consciousness.
“In choosing either one or the other he was denying himself, but the pressure was clearly very great to make this choice,” Caesar wrote.
In 1914, the First World War broke out, and Brooke soon enlisted, paving the way for him to become a war poet. Tragically, Brooke did not live long. He contracted sepsis from a mosquito bite while sailing with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in February 1915. On April 23, he died aboard a French hospital ship.
One month later, his most famous poetry collection 1914 and Other Poems was published, and went on to become a bestseller in Britain.
Winston Churchill described him as ‘joyous, fearless, versatile’ in an obituary.
Brooke was held in such high esteem that Winston Churchill wrote an obituary for him in The Times newspaper. Churchill said Brooke’s life had “closed at the moment when it seemed to have reached its springtime”.
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“A voice had become audible, a note had been struck, more true, more thrilling, more able to do justice to the nobility of our youth in arms engaged in this present war, than any other more able to express their thoughts of self-surrender, and with a power to carry comfort to those who watch them so intently from afar.
He continued: “The voice has been swiftly stilled. Only the echoes and the memory remain; but they will linger.”
“Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, ruled by high undoubting purpose, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered,” he concluded.
105 years after his death, Brooke is still held in high esteem by literary critics – and his sexuality has remained a talking point for much of that time.